Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Ascending & Descending Glory” first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Touchstone.
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Ascending & Descending Glory
by Anthony Esolen
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers," calls out the Father to the assembled angels in Paradise Lost.
No doubt he meant also to summon the other four orders, the seraphim and cherubim, the archangels and the angels. Such were the nine orders denominated by Dionysius and accepted by Christian theologians and poets of the Middle Ages and beyond. And yet, says Thomas Aquinas, angels do not belong to species. In this regard, they are not like men. Each individual angel is his own kind.
I have no credentials in angelology, and maybe that is why Thomas's conclusion used to puzzle me. How, if each angel is his own kind, can the angels enjoy unity? And how can such unity be a model for creatures like us, who are of one kind, namely, mankind?
I think there's an answer suggested by an amiable hymn for Michaelmas, "Christ the Fair Glory of the Holy Angels," written in Latin Sapphics by the friend of Charlemagne, St. Rabanus Maurus. But before I turn to that, I'd like to meditate a little upon this business of unity.
Distinction & Unity
When I behold the long-trapped sand dunes in my town, thirty miles from the sea, I'm looking at things that are indistinguishable. A grain of sand is like a grain of sand. There is a certain elementary oneness about a dune, a oneness that is nigh unto the nothingness of empty space. But as we ascend the ladder of being, the distinctions between creatures increase, along with their capacity for being-together, for unity. A school of fish is a more complex and interesting manifestation of unity than is a sand dune; but a pack of dogs is more interesting still, since there are real, if rudimentary, relationships between each dog and each other dog.
In our own kind, we see the distinctions and the capacity for unity increase the closer we draw to holiness—to the beyond-natural fulfillment of human nature. Hence Dante's insight in submerging many of the sinners in the Inferno beneath individuality: they lose their very names. So the worst traitors of all are encased wholly in ice, like flies in amber, "together" in the most trivial sense, yet separated by an impassable distance—for they cannot even speak to one another.
"The wages of sin is death," says St. John, and after a short while one dead man looks as rotten as another, as sludge blackens and conceals the face. It is the saints, rather, who are sweetly distinct. In the Body of Christ, says St. Paul, there are teachers, apostles, prophets, people who speak in tongues—one Spirit, but many gifts. Each individual member of the body is unique, unrepeatable, a wondrous way in which God has made himself manifest. Christian writers have intuited the principle. Peter the High King is not the same saint as his friend Caspian. The youthful Alyosha is not the same saint as is Bernanos's slowly dying Country Priest.
The lives of holy men and women confirm the intuition. We have a shrewd and meditative Teresa of Avila, and an irrepressibly cheerful Corrie ten Boom. We have the converted slave trader John Newton, and a fellow like Thomas Aquinas, who seems to have devoted his life to God from the time he was a child. We have John Bosco the showman and athlete, William Wilberforce the patient politician, King Louis the soldier, and Andre Bessette the beggar and handyman. Hell is dull, as mud is dull. Heaven instead is the symphony of personal being, the symphony of love.
So why should we suppose that the angels are indistinguishable? Painters haven't helped us much here; they sometimes give us a blooming mass of cherubic baby faces and baby bodies, chubby and naked, like clumsy bumblebees. Yet if the rule I have suggested applies, then one angel is far more distinct from another angel than one saint is from another saint, and, moreover, this distinction implies all the more profound unity.
The ultimate in distinction and unity would be, of course, the three Persons in one God; so any reduction of the Trinitarian teaching to modalism would imply a fundamentally unchristian understanding of what it means to be in unity in the first place: as if the Communion of Saints were a Collective of Saints, like an impersonal beehive, or an Ectoplasm of Saints, like a spiritual amoeba.
Ensouled Acts of Love
Here I turn to Rabanus's hymn, and find distinctions everywhere:
The last line alludes to Jacob's dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder from earth to heaven. Each angel, we may suppose, is sent to a nation, or to a man, just as each man is called to imitate the angels by taking those steps toward God.
Rabanus next devotes one stanza to each of the three great princes mentioned in Scripture (which for him includes the Book of Tobit):
If the Word of God and the Love of God are God indeed, and Persons indeed, then it seems that in the angels God has ensouled certain acts of love in personal being. I dread to step farther here, but it is notable that Michael ("Who is like God?"), Gabriel ("God is mighty"), and Raphael ("God heals") are praised by loving attention to their distinct gifts to mankind. Their union—suggested by the repeated formula in each stanza—prepares us for our own union with them and with all the blessed:
All of which leads us to the final word of glory and unity:
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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